By Nuhu Othman – Nigeria, a nation once an aspirant to continental power has been enmeshed in a brutal and long war with a terrorist group called Jama’atu Ahlis Sunnah Lidda’Awati Wal Jihad (People Committed to the Prophet’s Teachings for Propagation and Jihad), and also known as Boko Haram (Western Education is Forbidden). In the last 5 years of brutal terrorist campaign, this group has seized control of over 20,000 square kilometres in 3 north-eastern states of Nigeria, namely: Borno, Yobe and Adamawa. These onslaughts are not without human casualties-13,000 people have died with an estimated1.5 million persons displaced as at October 2014, and still counting.
The activities of this group shouldn’t come as a surprise to us, because of how globalised terrorism has become. Under the layers of the fight against this terrorist group lies a sinister reality in northern Nigeria, that has been, for a long time, a platform for the fight of supremacy between the Shia and Sunni schools of thought. Each of these groups preaches its gospel as the true gospel, while denouncing the other group sometimes as infidels. It should be noted that northern Nigeria has an influential clerical communities. They speak in unison for or against anything to protect common interests, besides this, they are at each other’s neck. It is noteworthy to state that, Boko Haram is a break-away group from a Sunni movement.
The Shia sect has been under serious hostility from either the Sunni sect or the government (security operatives). But the recent Arba’een (40 days of mourning for Imam Hussein) procession, a ritual that dates back to over 13 centuries, is more of a show of number and strength than mere mourning. A sectarian conflict between these two groups is likely in the nearest future. However, the adherents of Shia sect have been all peaceful, but this is only because the Sunni class has made them to be on the defensive. And also the Shia activities had suffered a tremendous setback during the regime of Gen Sani Abacha. The Shia sect is fighting tooth and nail to gain credibility, as they are hounded as lesser Muslims. This subjugation of the Shia sect may not be sustainable over time. The Shiites will engage their Sunni counterpart in a battle of supremacy as they grow both in size and strength.
Every religious mayhem in Nigeria shows some signs that they are about to happen, but we simply don’t take heed. We only wrongly assume that it will exhaust itself and fizzle out. The Boko Haram menace is a typical example. It was largely and intra-Sunni squabble-a faction tagging the rest as not Sunni enough-that degenerated to this level. Underneath this minor squabble laid a major rift that only came to the fore in 2009. And it is presently threatening the corporate existence of the country as well as the West African sub-region.
While it is easy to get rid of the Boko Haram insurgency by sustained plan and a corresponding action. The same is not true for a sectarian conflict. Because it will be closely knitted into the fabric of the northern society.
The southern part of Nigeria, especially the south-west is immune to this shock chiefly because traditional cultures are placed above religion here. Though little skirmishes in its neighbouring states (Kwara and Kogi) seem highly likely. However, this may not have a considerable spill over effect. It should be noted that south-south and south-eastern parts may not be hit by this scourge. These parts also grapple with other challenges in the forms of kidnapping, oil theft (which breeds restiveness among the teeming unemployed youths) etc.
A demotivated and highly politicised Nigerian military force cannot put sectarian activities under check. Military campaigns as seen in Nigeria aren’t likely to command a popular passion. In the event of a sectarian conflict, Niger and northern Cameroon will be more vulnerable and unstable. In fact, it is likely to reach Burkina Faso. Because subtle Sunni evangelism from Nigeria is being carried to this frontier lately. A careful understanding of what each sect’s teaching curriculum is; their motivation; source of funding etc will go a long way in helping authorities form basis for action plan.
The frightening dimension is the likelihood of the use of arms-no matter how less sophisticated the weapons might be at the outset of a sectarian conflict. These groups have taken advantage of an army of unemployed youths as ready machine tools. On the surface, they are used as either first aid corps or human shields (body guards) for the protection of their leaders. Of course, there’s nothing wrong for people to voluntarily give themselves up to any endeavour as long as it does not offend the laws of the land. However, there seems to be a subliminal militarisation of these personnel. These armies of unquestioning followers would not hesitate a moment at the instruction of their leaders. Nothing suggests to the fact that they possess arms for now. But Boko Haram did not show any sign or ability of arm confrontation at their infancy.
The idea of government trying to achieve a rapprochement between these sects, and even make them work together will be seen by these groups as a sectarian miscegenation. They will resist every effort along this line. It is about control, power and leadership. And all these come with material benefits.
Nigeria with porous borders and a fast fading staying power cannot successfully tame this looming sectarian tide all alone. As commitment and co-operation from neighbouring countries aren’t forthcoming. These challenges have thrust Nigeria out of its comfort zone. Certainly, a strong Nigeria-American entente at this time is imperative. Nigeria must normalise relations with the United States of America.
Nuhu Othman is an Economist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org